The 93-year journey of Kool Korner sandwich shop’s forever-young Ildefonso Ramirez
It was time for Ildefonso Ramirez to hang up his apron.
Lucia, his wife of 53 years and his best friend since they were children growing up in Cuba, had died four years earlier.
And Kool Korner Grocery, the little Cuban grocery and sandwich shop that Mr. Ramirez and his wife had opened in Atlanta’s Midtown area 21 years before, was forced to close when the building’s owners sold the property.
So Mr. Ramirez, who had lived in a one-bedroom apartment behind his shop, packed everything he owned into the back of a U-Haul truck and moved to Birmingham, where he bought a house in suburban Vestavia Hills.
He came here to be near his only son, Guillermo — or Bill, as he goes by in the United States — the son for whom Mr. Ramirez fled Cuba because he did not want his boy to have to grow up under the oppressive thumb of Fidel Castro.
At his new home in Vestavia Hills, Mr. Ramirez bided his time by listening to his Luciano Pavarotti cassettes, playing his harmonica, and watching his vast collection of old John Wayne movies.
Retirement, though, did not suit the restless Mr. Ramirez.
“When I arrived here, I thought I would not work anymore,” Mr. Ramirez remembers. “My feeling was to rest, but I couldn’t.”
So in June 2009, at the spry age of 86, he reopened Kool Korner Sandwiches in the Vestavia Hills City Center off Montgomery Highway, not far from his house.
In search of the American Dream
It would be another seven years, though, before Mr. Ramirez and his wife and son made it to America.
After he expressed his desire to leave Cuba, Mr. Ramirez lost his job at the rayon factory, and for the next five years, he worked in the fields outside Matanzas, chopping hemp plants used for making rope.
“Five years,” Mr. Ramirez says. “The same as Russia sends people to Siberia, they send the dissidents to the fields of Cuba to work. Seven in the morning until 7 in the afternoon.”
Finally granted approval to leave Cuba in 1970, the family relocated to Spain, where Mr. Ramirez sold ice cream and his wife worked as a seamstress. They saved their money and awaited the opportunity to come to America.
Mr. Ramirez was the first to come here, arriving in Miami, where he had friends and some family members from Cuba, in March 1972.
“When I put my feet on this land, I started crying,” Mr. Ramirez remembers. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I am here at last.”
His wife and son came a few months later, arriving in New York City on the Fourth of July. As their plane began its descent into John F. Kennedy International Airport, they could see the Independence Day celebration below.
Their American Dream was starting to come true.
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